Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The age of unchallenged ideas

Election 2012 is now history and the outcome, to the dismay of some, is more of the same: a divided government--and a sharply divided one at that--with Democrats in control of the White House and Senate and Republicans controlling the House of Representatives. Fears that gridlock in Washington will continue seem justified, and only time will tell if real change can happen to address some of the most urgent problems facing our country, not the least of which being the fiscal cliff and the daunting problem of what to do about a national debt that now totals more than $16 trillion.

But before the memories of yesterday's election recede in our minds, only to be replaced by whatever new cultural meme should arise, we should take a moment to examine the larger issue of why our country remains stuck in a state of polarized suspended animation. Since at least the 2000 presidential election the U.S. has been locked in an ideological stalemate, with the country roughly split in half and with conservatives and liberal/progressives battling it out over fiscal and social issues not only at the ballot box, but daily on TV, radio, and the Internet. Such partisan rancor and animosity is not new, of course. It's been part of this country's history since its founding. What is new, however, are the platforms available today on which these battles are fought.

In decades past Democrats and Republicans waged war through a mainstream media respected by most and regarded as an objective arbiter of truth. Today we have media of every stripe (from cable news networks, political blogs, Twitter feeds, and more) existing for the sole purpose of reinforcing various political viewpoints. From Fox News to MSNBC, from to the Huffington Post, and, to a lesser extent, even from old media stalwarts such as the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times, it's never been easier to find media that agrees with our viewpoint but that also--and this is important--limits exposure to views that challenge our own core beliefs.

We live in an age in which finding confirmation for our beliefs, biases, and suspicions is as easy as ordering a podcast off iTunes. Think Republicans are all greedy fat cats who crap on the poor? Here's an anecdote that proves you're right, courtesy of liberal blog X. Think the president wants more people dependent on government handouts? Try this cable news report on for size. But while this relatively new commodity of multi-platform, bias-affirming media content surely deserves some of the blame for stoking the partisan flames burning in our country, the reality is that--to paraphrase Harry Truman--the buck doesn't stop with them, it stops with us, the people.

The fact is that we've become a country that is far more interested in having its beliefs confirmed than having them challenged. We're no longer as interested in an honest exchange of ideas, in which our most cherished beliefs are exposed to criticism. Instead we prefer to stay where it's safe--indulging only in media that tells us we're right and that conveniently serves up evidence to prove it. The 19th century British political philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that ideas that go unchallenged become weak, and this is one of the real dangers of our country's current political dynamic. The longer we live inside echo chambers that tell us only what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear the more polarized the country gets. This may make us feel better about ourselves, but it surely makes us feel worse about those who disagree with us, and this collective inability to reach across the divide makes building bridges all but impossible. Yet in a country as evenly divided as ours building bridges is the only way we can hope to tackle the challenges before us.
Due to illness and inertia, Bend the World has been on hiatus. It now returns.

Friday, July 8, 2011

License for a cheaper military

The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was obviously a foreign policy coup for President Obama, but it could end up paying unforeseen dividends in ongoing talks with Republicans over a large deficit reduction package.

The GOP staunchly opposes tax increases and defense cuts. But the daring raid on Abbottabad that killed the al Qaeda leader demonstrated once and for all that the "war on terror" will not be won by armies as much as it will by individuals. Obama rightly refocused the military's efforts away from traditional standing army wars -- such as those favored by his predecessor, George W. Bush -- in favor of a more tactical approach using Predator drones and, in the case of bin Laden, an elite special ops team.

So what does this have to do with the budget? Defense dominates discretionary spending, at upwards of $600 billion per year. What do we get for this money? A large, well-trained, well-equipped (Iraq notwithstanding) military all dressed up to fight no one. In fact, the U.S. hasn't fought a traditional war, in the army vs. army on the battlefield sense, since WWII. Yet we still fund the military as though this was our primary concern. It's not. Catching or killing terrorists is. And that, while still requiring expensive state-of-the-art technical expertise and equipment, pales in comparison with the cost of feeding, clothing and sheltering well over one million troops.

The killing of bin Laden provides Obama and Congressional Republicans all the cover they need to endorse steep cuts in military spending. Ours will still be the mightiest military on earth, as it should remain. It just doesn't have to cost so much.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Looking beyond the Red-Blue divide

The Pew Research Center has posted an interesting new study of political typology that goes beyond the standard Democrat-Republican-Independent framework, introducing such categories as "post-moderns" and "disaffecteds" to more accurately reflect the wide spectrum of political identities in the country today. The site includes a nifty quiz that helps users determine which of nine categories they belong to. It's well worth a look.

How we kill our enemies, part II

Apparently we here at Bend the World aren't the only ones concerned that the way in which Osama bin Laden was killed may set a precedent for future targeted assassinations by the U.S. and other nations. The BBC reports that members of the British parliament are assessing how the hit could alter policy on fighting terrorism. Read it here.

Friday, May 6, 2011

How we kill our enemies

The long overdue killing of Osama bin Laden has raised many questions: How could Pakistani intelligence not have known he was living in their country for at least five years? Would the U.S. have found him if not for so-called enhanced interrogation techniques? Does Bush or Obama deserve more credit for his discovery and termination? All are good questions, but the one that perhaps deserves the most attention for what it says about U.S. policy is this: Are we now officially in the business of targeted killing of our enemies?

Sure enough, the U.S. has already carried out hundreds of targeted assassinations over the past few years in the form of Predator drone strikes, most of these coming in Northwest Pakistan and aimed at killing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The fact that innocent bystanders unlucky enough to be situated near these terrorists -- in the wrong place at the wrong time -- have paid with their lives has been greeted with a collective shrug by an American populace relatively unconcerned about the well-being of people they know and think little about.

But that’s just an unfortunate footnote to a post-9/11 mentality that has made overt targeted killing accepted U.S. policy.

Think back 20 or 30 years ago. Sure there were rumors of CIA plots to overthrow foreign leaders, such as the comical effort to kill Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar. But the thought of U.S. troops invading a supposed ally in order to kill one of our enemies, with results later announced by the president on national TV, would have been almost unimaginable. The U.S. simply didn’t do things like that. And it officially condemned such actions by its ally, Israel.

No, sending a hit squad to take out the bad guys just wasn’t our thing, just as torturing prisoners was positively, unthinkably un-American. But 9/11 brought about many "unthinkable" changes to our country, one of these being recalibration of what we’ll call our “security ethics,” our comfort level with policies designed to keep us safe and prevent additional attacks.

It’s time we, as a country, acknowledged this. And it’s also time we began hoping and praying our leaders don’t abuse the public's newfound tolerance of some of these activities.

Taking out bin Laden was the right thing to do. No question. But the manner in which he was killed should cause us all to take a step back and consider where we go from here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fishing with the Tea Party

Tea partiers have turned the old expression “fish or cut bait” on its ear. For them, the message to some Congressional leaders is “cut or you’re fish bait.”

Monday, March 14, 2011

Earthquake awakens old ghosts

Today's headlines, dominated by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting potential nuclear meltdown, along with ongoing coverage of the conflict in Libya, represent contrasting reminders of the dangers inherent in two of our country's favorite power sources: nukes and oil.

The systemic failure at the Fukushima nuclear plant, which most experts say is unlikely to result in anything approaching the catastrophic level of a Chernobyl, has nonetheless reawakened old fears about the dangers of nuclear power.

Talk about an industry in need of an image makeover. Despite justifiable safety concerns, the fact remains that nuclear energy is far safer today than it was in the 1970s and '80s. Indeed, one reason startup costs are so high — billions of dollars per reactor in the U.S. -- is because of these added safeguards.

In point of fact, years from now we could end up looking back at the Japanese earthquake as one of the nuclear power industry's most important tests.

If — and it's a big if — things don't get any worse in Japan, the nation's nuclear infrastructure will have withstood one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded with relatively little threat to public safety. Now consider the costs to public safety associated with Japan's and the U.S.'s reliance on imported oil. Japan gets about three-quarters of its imported oil from the Middle East, which is one reason the U.S., an important trade partner, feels compelled to make sure the petroleum continues to flow freely from that region.

Contrast the concerns over possible nuclear fallout in Japan with the fighting happening in Libya, where a dictator uses his oil wealth to cling to power. It's the same throughout the region, with the West's allegiance to oil serving as a primary energy source fueling autocratic regimes, stifling democracy, and helping to stoke anti-U.S. sentiment.

Nuclear power holds much promise, the most significant being the chance to wean ourselves and our allies off foreign oil and to reduce harmful carbon emissions. We shouldn't let what's happening in Japan -- and old ghosts -- lead us astray.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Two glimpses of the future

A pair of thought-provoking new essays worth your time:

The first sounds the alarm (for any who haven't been listening) on the potential for America's long-term decline. Time columnist Fareed Zakaria lays out an all-too convincing case that the U.S. is stagnating while the rest of world catches up. It includes a call for a return to a time when the U.S. maintained global leadership in a broad array of quality-of-life indicators by emphasizing values such as investment, innovation and education as opposed to today's political culture in which hard decisions are continuously put on lay-away, core needs such as infrastructure and health care are not adequately met, and complacency, more than anything, has become America's worst enemy. Read it here.

Also concerned with the future, but with a less conclusive thesis, James Fallows's essay in the April issue of The Atlantic offers an insightful look at the changing media landscape and what it means for the legacy of "do-gooder" journalism. It's an important history lesson that asks some of the most pertinent questions facing the industry and news consumers, namely: What is journalism's role in the new media age? The answer is somewhat surprising and an illuminating take on a question that will help shape how we interact with the world for decades to come. Read it here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt's brave new world

Among the most stunning qualities of Egypt’s revolution, culminating in today’s resignation by President Hosni Mubarak, is the degree to which it is both nameless and faceless. The symbol of this uprising is not a person, a flag or even a slogan. It is an anonymous young Egyptian, yelling into the night, demanding his freedom despite the long odds of him getting it. And yet, with that voice multiplied by hundreds of thousands, the unlikely has indeed come to pass, and Egypt awaits a new beginning, with a future that, while uncertain, is welcomed with open arms.

The fact that this revolution lacks a real leader -- Mohamed ElBaradei always seemed to be more a rider of the popular wave of revolt than a driver of it – makes it both exciting and terrifying. Consider, for the sake of comparison, the Velvet Revolution led by Vaclav Havel in what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. There, a well-organized reform coalition, the Civic Forum, stood ready to assume power and run the country. In Egypt, the movement’s relative lack of experience makes its achievement all the more impressive, but invites a power struggle as various factions vie for control. Meanwhile, the Egyptian military stands poised to play the role of powerbroker, a scenario that brings its own risks. While the threat of an Islamist takeover engineered by the Muslim Brotherhood is quite real, so too is the threat of consolidation of power under the military. Throughout the past two weeks it has been the military – an institution of great respect in Egyptian society and a source of national pride -- that maintained order amid the chaos. For this the military is to be commended. But as things currently stand the fate of Egyptian democracy rests largely on the shoulders of the country’s military leaders. To what degree are they committed to ceding some of their newly acquired power to a democratically elected government? That, perhaps more than anything, will determine where Egypt goes from here.

Today’s resignation by Mubarak is merely the end of the beginning in Egypt’s quest to reinvent herself. The world, and millions of Egyptians, wait anxiously to see what shape she takes.
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